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Carnaval Around the World

© Dancing Bear Club, Recife and Olinda, Brazil 2000 Photograph by Helgo Ancona

Recife and its neighboring city of Olinda grew up in the 16th and 17th centuries as commercial harbors for the rich sugar plantations established by Portuguese colonists in northeastern Brazil, just south of the equator. During the conquest, most of the local Indian population was destroyed or forced into the interior of the country and African slaves were brought to work in the fields. One of the earliest forms of carnaval introduced by the Portuguese colonists was known as the entrudo (the opening) that consisted of raucous water fights and throwing of flour, soot, mud, and other substances. By the late 18th century wealthy citizens of Recife and Olinda began to sponsor lavish costume balls and elaborate street parades with floats and pedestrian orchestras.

Since their emancipation from slavery in the late 19th century, Afro-Brazilians have been able to join in the carnaval celebrations, and today this is a dynamic event with over a million participants from different social classes. The transition from winter to spring is far from the minds of the residents of Recife and Olinda, thanks to a year-round tropical climate and the fact that Lent and Easter actually take place in their late summer. But the structure of the celebration follows the European urban model, with distinct clubs coming out of trade guilds, religious organizations, and neighborhood associations. Street processions feature costumes, rhythms, and dance drawn from European, African, and mythic Brazilian Indian traditions.

© Young Passo Dancers Performing to Frevo Music, Recife and Olinda, Brazil 2000
Photograph by Katarina Real

Carnival in Recife and Olinda features lively music and dance unique to this region of Brazil. Frevo music (from the Portuguese word ferver - to boil) evolved as Afro-Brazilians transformed European brass band marching tunes into syncopated rhythms with improvised fanfares and solos. The accompanying dance, known as the passo, grew out of acrobatic displays by groups of young black men who carried long knives to threaten other gangs as part of their performance. By the early 20th century these aggressive acrobatic demonstrations were outlawed and transformed into a tamer dance with multicolored umbrellas replacing the knives. Today dozens of dance schools offer passo lessons to children and teenagers who perform in the Carnival processions.

© Queen of a Maracatu Nation,
Recife and Olinda, Brazil 1998
Photograph by Barbara Mauldin

The origin of the maracatu nation Carnival clubs can be traced to the early 19th century when plantation owners organized their African slaves into "nations" according to their tribal origins. As part of the Christmas season entertainment, these groups performed dance pageants dressed up as kings, queens, and other members of the Portuguese royal court. They were accompanied by drummers playing African polyrhythms, known as maracatus. After emancipation from slavery in the late 19th century, the "nations" moved into Recife and established Afro-Brazilian religious organizations. Over time they served as a base for the maracatu nation Carnival clubs who continue to dress up in elaborate costumes of a royal court and dance to distinctive African rhythms played by their drummers.

© Rural Maracatu Carnival Group,
Recife and Olinda, Brazil 2000
Photograph by Katarina Real

Some of the most extraordinary groups found in Recife and Olinda Carnival are known as rural maracatu de baque solto, referring to the loose style rhythms played by their small orchestras. The performances of these groups originated in the 18th and 19th centuries on rural sugar plantations in the interior region northwest of Recife where enslaved Africans worked alongside Brazilian Indians. The most spectacular figures are the caboclos de lança (Afro-Indian lancers) who represent warriors possessed by Amerindian or African spirits. They dance, leap, drop to the ground, and sometimes duel with one another by slashing out with their long lances. Large cowbells worn on the dancers backs make a clanking noise as they run and dance.

© Parade of Giant Puppets,
Recife and Olinda, Brazil 2000
Photograph by Helga Ancona

Giant puppets are a major feature of Carnival in Olinda where dozens of these huge figures parade along the cobblestone streets. The large papier-mâché head and torso of the puppet attaches to a frame worn on the shoulders of a young man. He looks out through a small peephole in the front of the skirt or pantaloons as he dances and spins, giving the figure life. Most of these huge puppets represent historical, comical, or satirical figures known by the people of Olinda.

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